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Saving the Mt. Sinai Mosaics, George H. Forsyth and Kurt Weitzmann, BAR 4:04, Nov-Dec 1978.

The Mosaic of the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount TaborArchaeologists usually recover their treasures beneath the earth. Instead of digging beneath the earth, however, we were high above it on a four-story scaffold, exploring the half-dome of the apse of the Byzantine Church at Saint Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. But we felt as much like archaeologists as those who dig deep in the earth. For we too were recovering the past. We were reclaiming one of the world’s greatest Byzantine mosaics—from centuries of dirt, grime, varnish and even glue which had collected on its surface. Gradually, as the surface was painstakingly scraped with delicate dentists’ tools and then cleaned without chemicals, what had been dull, faint, discolored and often obscure emerged brilliant, clear and breathtaking, just as it must have looked more than 1400 years ago when artists and workmen created it at the command of Emperor Justinian I the Great (527–565).

On the half-dome of the apse was the great Transfiguration scene, as reported in Matthew 17-1–8, Mark 9-2–8 and Luke 9-28–35 (see pp. 26–27). In the center of the scene was Christ on Mount Tabor depicted within a divine aureole of light. Kneeling on either side of him were the disciples John and James, watching the transfigured Christ. Beneath him was Peter “heavy with sleep” (Luke 9-32); and standing beside him, as the Evangelists tell us, were the prophets, Elijah and Moses.
On the wall above the apse, on either side of two arched windows through which the brilliant desert light streamed, were two scenes from the Old Testament- Moses removing his sandals at the Burning Bush and Moses receiving the Law on Mount Sinai.

The first time we examined the mosaic, we discovered that we were within a hairsbreadth of losing it forever- the whole figure of Christ was detached from the half-dome. It hung from the curved masonry surface like a veil. Over the centuries, seeping water had eroded the mortar between the granite blocks of which the half-dome is constructed. A slight jar would have reduced a priceless artistic legacy to a meaningless rubble of colored stones.

Our first task was to re-attach the mosaic to the half-dome. We opened 56 tiny holes in the mosaic by temporarily removing a few carefully marked cubes. We then forced mortar through the holes to re-bind the scene to the wall. In seven of the more critical areas, copper pins were inserted into holes that we drilled into the granite blocks so that the pins would securely anchor the new mortar. Then the cubes were set back in place, not only in their original location, but also in the same surface profile, since in a good mosaic every cube is set at a slightly different angle in order to reflect light to the beholder with the particular degree of brilliance intended by the artist. Only then could we proceed with the cleaning.a

Our first trip to Mount Sinai was in 1956, as part of a joint project by the University of Michigan, Princeton University and the University of Alexandria in Egypt. We returned a number of times in the year that followed and we are still publishing the results of our work. But the great mosaic has now been completely preserved and restored.

While in the popular mind St. Catherine’s Monastery is associated with Mount Sinai and the giving of the Law, it was in fact founded to mark the spot where tradition says that Moses confronted the Burning Bush (Exodus 3). Just behind the apse mosaic depicting the Transfiguration is a small chapel where the Burning Bush itself is said to have stood. There the Lord spoke to Moses out of the flame. There Moses removed his sandals because he stood on holy ground. There Moses covered his face for he was afraid to gaze on God. And there began Moses’ return to Egypt to liberate his people in God’s name.

The first reference to this spot in the desert as the site of the Burning Bush pre-dates Justinian by 150 years. It is contained in the travel diary of a redoubtable Spanish lady named Etheria who traveled widely in the Near East during the late fourth century A.D. Etheria describes in detail her ascent of Mount Sinai (clearly the same mountain which tradition still identifies with the sacred height), where she spent the night. The next day she descended on the eastern side of the mountain by a path which led her to the site of the Burning Bush- “It is alive to this day and throws out shoots,” she reported. The Bush stood in “a very pleasant garden” and behind it as she descended from the mountain, was a church. Both Bush and church were under the care of holy men who lived in cells in the surrounding slopes and who provided accommodation for Etheria and her party.

According to various accounts, the holy men of the Mountain who welcomed Etheria were soon thereafter subjected to persecutions and massacres by wild tribes. The accounts are unreliable and seem largely fictitious, but they may contain authentic reverberations of that restless movement of peoples along the eastern marches of the later Roman Empire, like besiegers testing the defenses of a fortress. Under Justinian and his predecessors an elaborate defensive system had been erected to counter such threats.

The present fortified monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai may have been erected by Justinian between 548 and 565 as a part of this defensive system. According to a later account, he built it merely to protect the monks, at their urgent plea, but Procopius, a dependable contemporary writer, states that it was intended for a much larger defensive purpose. Today the fortress—about the size of a city block—encloses the church as well as many more recent buildings, including a mosque.

Obviously, the architect of the fortress was greatly inconvenienced by the location of the site of the Burning Bush which, like any holy spot, could not possibly be moved. Since it was located only a short distance up the side of the valley, whose floor is occasionally subject to flash floods, he was unable to place a square around the Burning Bush site as its central focus without risking destruction of that part of the fortress which would project onto the floor of the valley and be exposed to torrential runoff. To avoid such an exposed position, the architect created the square fortress parallel to the valley floor and as far up the slope as possible, accepting a lopsided composition in which the site of the Bush is at one side of the square and in its lowest part. Because of the slope, Justinian’s architect built terraces, carried on great arches, at the bottom of the slope so as to equalize the level of the area within the monastery. Because the site of the Burning Bush is in the lowest part of the whole monastery, the church appears sunk deeply in the ground. It is a good four meters below the ground level of the portal of the monastery. A flight of steps leads from the upper level down to the church door.

The original outer wall of the fortress can be traced through its whole perimeter, under later remodelings and superstructures; on three sides it rises to its original height. Because of the monastery’s remoteness in the rocky desert, far out of the way of the great trade and military routes, it has never been destroyed by a conquering army. In many places its battlements are still in position. Its surface is enlivened by original decorative carved panels, mostly from the sixth century, which are set above slit windows. The Church roof rests on 15 wooden trusses, which are original sixth century work, as proven by carbon 14 tests. Three of the horizontal beams are inscribed with invocations on the behalf of the Emperor Justinian, his Empress Theodora, and the architect of the church, Stephanus of Aila (near today’s Eilat on the Gulf of Eilat [Aqaba]). One inscription mentions Justinian as still alive at the time; a second indicated that Theodora his wife was already dead; therefore, the church must have been built between Theodora’s death in 548 and Justinian’s death in 565. It is a rare piece of good fortune that so well-preserved a church should also be a signed and dated work.

The plan of the church is a typical Byzantine basilica. It is entered through a narthex or porch. Two rows of columns divide the hall into a central nave flanked by an aisle on each side. At the end of the nave is the great altar, which stands on a raised platform in front of the semi-circular apse containing the Transfiguration mosaic.

As mentioned above, behind the apse is now the Chapel of the Burning Bush. Originally, there was no Burning Bush Chapel, but a small unroofed area like a diminutive court or open bay, accessible from the church through doors from the corner chapels at the ends of the aisles; in the court stood the miraculous Bush itself, ever flourishing, as in Etheria’s day. Evidently, pilgrims passed from the church aisles into the corner chapels and from them through the doors which led out to the court of the Burning Bush behind the main apse. A medieval traveler reports that the Bush finally disappeared, having been torn apart for relics, and was replaced by a memorial in a chapel, which is the present-day Chapel of the Burning Bush, occupying the place of the original court. Inside the present chapel is an altar over a slab marking the spot where the Bush once grew.

Justinian originally dedicated the monastery to the Virgin Mary. Centuries later it was re-dedicated to Saint Catherine by whose name the monastery is still called. Saint Catherine had upbraided the Roman Emperor Maximinus for his persecution of Christians. The Emperor retaliated by torturing her on the wheel then beheading her. Her body and severed head were miraculously transported by five angels to Mount Saint Catherine, a peak next to Mt. Sinai. The angels watched over the priceless relic for 300, some said 500, years until its presence was revealed to the monks who joyfully bore it to their Church, which they renamed in her honor in about the tenth century.

Prior to our publication of detailed photographs of the mosaic of the Transfiguration, scholars were unable to form a just estimate of its importance. It was previously thought to be of a late date and largely restored. Even more important, its artistic quality was not fully appreciated and it was thought to be rather provincial. From indistinct drawings and photographs, one scholar had seen the Tablets of the Law which Moses receives on Mount Sinai as having rounded tops. On this basis, he concluded that the mosaic could not date earlier than the 16th century. Actually, as clearly appears after our cleaning, Moses receives a rolled-up scroll from the hand of God, which supports a much earlier date. Other scholars misread other details which led them to date the angels above the apse to a later period. Blotches of grime led still others to see reconstructions and repairs that were not there.

When we cleaned the mosaic, we went over it inch by inch and found no trace of a later resetting of cubes. Moreover, the mosaic is in almost perfect condition. Two fortunate circumstances account for its remarkable state of preservation. First, climatic conditions in the desert are favorable for the mosaic’s preservation; and second, in the remote wilderness of Sinai, a workshop for major repairs and revisions could not easily be set up. If we remember how often the mosaics of Ravenna have been restored, we can appreciate all the more that the Sinai mosaic is the best preserved mosaic from the Early Byzantine period in existence.

That the mosaic dates from the church’s construction by Justinian now seems clear also. In the post-Justinian period, presumably in the seventh century, additional decoration in the apse area was undertaken but not in mosaic; instead, encaustic painting was used. In 726, an imperial edict forbade the making of holy images and by that time the Arab conquests had effectively cut off the monastery from direct contact with the Byzantine Empire. None of the later additions to the church, of which there were many, ever reached the splendor and high level of the Age of Justinian. By contrast Justinian, whose decree founded the monastery, was known largely for his architectural and artistic enterprises. So we think we are justified in concluding that the entire church was completed by Justinian in a relatively short period of concentrated effort and that the mosaic was part of that effort.

This mosaic is all the more precious because so few mosaics from the Age of Justinian have survived anywhere. The same edict which in 726 forbade the making of holy images also ordered all existing ones destroyed. The work of the iconoclasts (who regarded images as idols) was so thorough that in Constantinople not a single mosaic escaped their furor. Only outside the capital and, more often, outside the empire (as in the case of our monastery) have rare examples of Justinianic mosaics survived. None is in such an excellent state of preservation as the Saint Catherine mosaic because it was not even whitewashed during the period of iconoclasm.

Even more important, we now know that the Saint Catherine’s mosaic, far from being of provincial quality, was executed with the highest artistic skill by what must have been the leading artists of an eminent atelier. Our own guess is that the artists and workmen came from Constantinople to the Sinai for the purpose of creating this mosaic; in the time of Justinian, only Constantinople could have supplied such highly-trained artists and craftsmen. We know that mosaicists from Constantinople were called to Damascus, Toledo, Kiev and Venice to undertake mosaic commissions. What could be more natural than the conjecture that the emperor’s personal patronage was responsible for sending these most skillful artists to the monastery of which he was the founder?
The figures in the mosaic reflect the widest range of human expression.

The face of Christ is the most abstract face in the whole mosaic. The geometric designs of the eyes, brows, nose and beard render the face immobile and devoid of any human emotion. The artist uses abstraction in order to express the superhuman, that is, divine nature of Christ. In conformity with this abstract conception, the body is dematerialized by flattening out the garment and by depicting a stance which does not suggest any distribution of weight.

In strong contrast, both prophets flanking Christ (Elijah and Moses), show a more human expression in their faces, which reflects a consciousness of observing, out of the corners of their eyes, the transfigured Christ with whom they speak, as indicated by the lively gesture of their raised hands. Moreover, their bodies, standing firmly on the ground, reveal a greater plasticity and with it a higher degree of physical reality. At the same time, the artist distinguishes between the calm expression in the face of Moses and the highly emotional face of Elijah.

The same distinction is made between the disciples John and James but in reverse. John, at Christ’s right, wears an expression of utter calm; James, at Christ’s left, has one of anxiety. By such a contrasting device the artist achieves a balance of emotional expressions that matches the compositional harmony. Peter, “heavy with sleep” lies in the middle ground, looking up at Christ.
In representing the apostles and prophets in the medallions which border the Transfiguration scene like a frame, the artist displays his ability to depict a variety of faces full of character- some are square, bald, and energetic, like Jonah; others, like Jeremiah, have thick black hair and the piercing eyes of a religious fanatic; still others, like Andrew, show an expression of pathos, not unlike what we saw in the faces of Elijah and James.

In the medallion directly beneath Christ is the bust of his royal ancestor David in the guise of a Byzantine emperor with a purple chlamys, earrings, and a jewel-studded crown surmounted by a cross. Presumably Justinian himself, the monastery’s founder, would have been garbed like this.

The wealth of artistic forms and expressions has its counterpart in the complexity of the content. There are, if one may use an archaeological simile, several “layers” of meaning which only an intensive study can unravel, and even then one cannot be sure whether all possibilities of exegesis have been exploited.

The dominating idea in the mosaic’s iconography is one dogma in particular that had the greatest impact on Byzantine art in general- the dogma of the two natures of Christ as formulated at the fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451. What better visualization of this dogma could there be than Christ’s transfiguration from the human to the divine nature and then from the divine to the human before the very eyes of the apostles who had accompanied him to Mount Tabor?
The two medallions on the axis with the Christ figure are juxtaposed in such a way that the golden cross, set against three blue circles, symbolizing the Trinity, alludes to the divine nature of Christ, while the bust of David alludes to Christ’s genealogy and thus to his human nature. Above the apse, on the so-called triumphal arch, appears a medallion containing the Lamb of God, to whom flanking angels offer the scepter and crown, after the fashion of imperial art. In the spandrels of the arch are medallions containing busts of the Virgin and of John the Baptist. In conjunction with the Lamb of God above, representing Christ, they appear as the intercessors for mankind. This grouping is known in Byzantine art as the Deesis.

Two crucial events in the life of Moses are depicted above the triumphal arch of the apse- Moses removing his sandals at the Burning Bush (see inside front cover) and Moses receiving the Law (see inside back cover). Who, in looking at Moses loosening his sandals, would not be aware that just behind this wall is the Chapel of the Burning Bush, the locus sanctus of the monastery, the spot where the sacred plant once stood? And who, seeing Moses receiving the Law, would not be reminded that beyond the clerestory windows one sees the high mountain of Ras Safsafa behind which towers, though invisible from the monastery, Gebel Musa (Mount Sinai), the traditional Mount of the Law where Moses received the tablets?

Yet this topographical connotation, self-evident as it may seem at the foot of Mount Sinai, was apparently not the primary reason for the choice of these scenes, since they occur also in the sanctuaries of other Early Christian churches, for example, in the choir of San Vitale in Ravenna. The appearance of God to Moses foreshadows typologically the Metamorphosis, in which the Divine Christ also appears to Moses in the Transfiguration scene. In the Old Testament, however, neither Moses nor Elijah was permitted to look upon the Lord face to face, but only to hear his voice (Exodus 3-4; Exodus 33-20–23; 1 Kings 19-13); whereas on Mount Tabor the two prophets do see the Lord in the manifestation of Christ, as depicted in the Transfiguration scene below the Old Testament scenes above the apse.

There is no other mosaic in existence from the Age of Justinian which is in such a perfect state of preservation, and which conveys in such unadulterated purity the original message of the mosaicist.

(For further information, see George H. Forsyth and Kurt Weitzmann, The Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai The Church and Fortress of Justinian, plates, (The University of Michigan Press, 1973).

a. The restoration work was under the direction of the late Paul A. Underwood, and the cleaning of the mosaic was most skillfully executed by the greatest expert in the field, Ernest Hawkins.

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